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Great article. I have been sharing it with dozens of people. Gregory Bateson treads similar ground in a critique of monoculture ("Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation" 1968) : "Our conscious sampling of data will not disclose whole circuits but only arcs of circuits, cut off from their matrix by our selective attention." ... and of course this kind of wisdom is/was well known to the sufis, the buddhists, the gnostics, and many others
Toggle Commented Aug 11, 2011 on What Gets Us Into Trouble? at Question Everything
Fascinating discussion. I also have trouble with the conceit that it is impossible to believe false things. This relates to an problem dealt with by Gregory Bateson, who asked another interesting question: Is it possible (for an organism/system/person/society) to go through life with an epistemology which is wrong/false in some details? How would that system then discover and correct the nature of the falsehood, even as the inaccuracies began to threaten the integrity of the system? Every physicist knows that Newton was both right and wrong about gravity and motion. As long as we are in the business of moving heavy stuff around on our human scale, Newton's laws are quite 'true enough to believe in. It's only at the extremes where we need other models, and most of us never venture into those extremes, even in our imagination. Bateson argued that, even if Lamarck's theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics could now be considered 'false' and even demonstrably toxic for evolution, there were certain aspects of it which were more 'true' and consistent with the facts than Darwin's rather more unlikely theory of natural selection. (This is explained in some detail in 'Mind and Nature' where natural selection is shown to safely simulate the inheritance of acquired characteristics. i.e. Natural selection does what the inheritance of acquired characteristics would do if it worked properly, and we would probably not have Darwin's theory without Lamarck's earlier identification of a formal mechanism of inheritance). We can see this as a warning, which is highly relevant today. Our politicians say they believe that the free market is not just the best way to organise resources, but that it is the only way. Boom/bust cycles will eventually cease, so the ideology goes, and we will all finally enjoy steady growth and prosperity. Now let's hypothesise that the boom/bust cycle is not an anomaly belonging to the past, but rather a direct consequence of market economics. (This is George Soros' view). The bust will always come as a surprise because those that really believe in the free market must also believe that there will be no bust - especially during a boom, which is for most people, indistinguishable from steady growth and prosperity. And the busts, the crises, the recessions, the depressions... they come, on a fairly regular basis, but on a timescale which allows several generations to pass in the belief that we have got beyond the bad old days, things have settled down, market economics is finally working properly now. It is certainly possible to believe false things, especially when you can back up your belief with the available evidence. You can read a relevant sufi story, 'When the Waters Were Changed' near the bottom of this page Another interesting example is Voodoo (or more properly 'Vodou') - a mish-mash religion cobbled together by runaway slaves living in desperate poverty, which allowed them to go against impossible odds (European armies with guns) and win. They knew it was their own religion, and that they had made it, and must therefore on some level been aware that it was a fiction, and yet they succeeded in emancipating themselves through their faith, which was the only proof they needed as to the 'truth' of the matter. I think this must be partly true of all 'start-up' religions (or 'cults' as detractors prefer to call them), at least for a brief period. The process of formalising Roman Catholic dogma is surely similar. A symbol used in a ritual is, ultimately, just a symbol, but that does not necessitate the abandonment of symbols (e.g. salt pentacles, the US dollar, nationhood, one and zero). We can agree that "5" is just as suitable a symbol as "V" for the same concept, and we can dream up other symbols if these are not to our liking, and we know that 'the name is not the thing named' but we still need to pick one before we do some arithmetic. At that moment, we begin to 'believe' in fictions, not for the sake of amusing ourselves with self-delusion, but for the sake of being able to manipulate those symbols and thereby getting closer to other truths - signing insurance forms, getting married, declaring wars etc.. In this sense, all epistemologies are fictional - i.e. are partly false, so it is not merely possible to believe in falsehoods, it is central to the very nature of belief.
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